An over-the-top experience – Beartooth Scenic Byway

After gallivanting in and around scenic Cody, Wyoming for a week, we packed up and continued north into our 48th state, big sky country – Montana!

Welcome Sign Montana
Hello, state #48!

We chose our first stop at Red Lodge Montana, largely due to Hans and Lisa’s great review of the town and Perry’s Campground (Steve’s review here).  We’re having a good time here, and I’ll give the details in my next post.  But for now let’s take a drive on the famed Beartooth Highway, a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road – which several of you have told us is a must-do.  And you were right!

I was curious what makes a highway a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road.  We have driven many byways (17 out of 32) during our travels, but I didn’t pay much attention to the designation until now.


According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, to be designated as a National Scenic Byway a road must possess at least one of six intrinsic qualities and be regionally significant: archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic.  To receive an All-American Road designation, a road must possess multiple intrinsic qualities that are nationally significant and have one-of-a-kind features that do not exist elsewhere.  The road or highway must also be considered a “destination unto itself.”  That is, the road must provide an exceptional traveling experience so recognized by travelers that they would make a drive along the highway a primary reason for their trip.

Let’s see if the Beartooth Highway lives up to its designation.  And because it’s a scenic drive, this post is loaded with pictures.  Are you ready?  Then let’s go!

Bear tooth Highway
Beartooth Highway is a stunning 68-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 212

This section of U.S. Highway 212 runs between Red Lodge and Cooke City, Montana, with a large portion running through the northwest corner of Wyoming.  It’s the highest elevation highway in Wyoming (10,947 feet) and Montana (10,350 feet), and the highest elevation highway in the Northern Rockies.  So high it’s only open mid-May through mid-October. We began our drive from our campground located right on Hwy 212 just 3 miles south of Red Lodge.

Beartooth Highway
A steep and twisty climb up the mountains with several 180 degree turns
Bear tooth Highway
The highway workers here appear to also be rock climbers!
Rock Creek Canyon
Looking down Rock Creek Canyon from a 9,190′ scenic overlook

Passing through lush forest, we continued our steady ascent into the arctic-alpine section of the drive on the Beartooth Plateau.  At about 10,000′ the road climbed above the treeline and crossed the alpine tundra on the plateau.

At this point Steve was no longer a happy driver as I constantly asked him to stop so I could photograph the gorgeous, beautiful wildflowers – and they were just about everywhere!

Hell roaring Plateau

Wildflowers at Beartooth Highway

Wildflowers at Beartooth Highway

The fragile tundra was full of blooms with a plethora of blue, pink, white and yellow wildflowers as far as the eye could see.  To appreciate these tiny flowers I had to drop almost to my belly to get good pictures.

We continued on until we reached the highest point at West Summit, elevation 10,974′.

Bear tooth Plateau
Switchbacks to the summit
Glacial Circue
Even in July the glacial cirque had deep snow around it
Alpine Lake
One of many alpine lakes
That spire jutting up like a fang?  Beartooth Peak – the namesake of the Beartooth Mountains

From here we had not only superb views of the highest peaks of the mountains, but also an excellent look at the distant North Absaroka Mountains in Wyoming.

West Summit, Beartooth Pass
The gusty winds up here just about blew me over!

Bear tooth Plateau

Bear tooth Pass

Construction of the 68-mile route began in 1931 and was completed in 1936.  Built at the cost of $2.5M, it ranks as one of the country’s major engineering feats.

Bear tooth Highway

We negotiated another series of switchbacks as we descended to the Wyoming section of the highway.

Bear tooth Highway
Island Lake and Beartooth Range

Fortunately the Clay Butte Fire Lookout Tower was open when we arrived.  It sits in windy isolation on a butte at 9811′, in the Wyoming section of the mountains.  A 3-mile drive up a gravel road ended at the structure, which was completed by the men of the CCC in 1942.

Clay Butte Fire Lookout Tower
The Clay Butte Fire Lookout Tower

The friendly volunteer demonstrated how firefighters once used the tower’s original Osborne Fire Finder to pinpoint a fire’s location after spotting it.  Although the instrument is no longer used, this tower is still in operation during fire season.

Clay Butte Fire Lookout tower

Clay Butte Lookout tower
All of the furniture had these insulators to protect folks from lightning strikes – scary!
Bear tooth Mountain Range
Snowcapped Beartooth Mountain Range

He also told us the history of Clay Butte Tower and how it has played a major role in fire detection and suppression in this area over the past 70+ years.

Clay Butte Fire Lookout Tower

While Steve continued to listen I walked around and found a few new friends:

Mountain Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird with a snack
Hoary Marmot
Hi there, Marmot
Another curious fellow

I admired a lavish array of wildflowers on the grounds and hillsides.  Beautiful!

Alpine forget-me not
Alpine forget-me-not
Yellow Columbine
Yellow Columbine
Absaroka Range
These cowboys had their horses loaded up for what appeared to be a long ride

Beartooth Butte was at the bottom of an inland sea millions of years ago, as evidenced by bands of sandstone on the formation.  Crystal-clear Beartooth Lake at the foot of the Butte is the largest in the area.

Bear tooth Lake
Beartooth Lake, where we enjoyed the view during lunch

Continuing south, we stopped at Lake Creek Falls where waters from the big snowmelt were rushing down the mountain:

Lake Creek Falls
Cascading water at Lake Creek Falls

Pilot and Index peaks seen at a different angle from the highway.  These peaks are very distinguishable from both Chief Joseph Scenic Byway and the Beartooth Highway.

Pilot and Index Peak

The 45th parallel is the latitude line that connects this spot along the highway with the prairies of South Dakota, the north woods of Maine, the wine country of France, the deserts of Mongolia and finally right back to this spot.


We grabbed a quick snack in Cooke City as the clouds began to gather overhead.  On our way back I caught a glimpse of a Moose by the road, and even though it was beginning to rain I had to capture her pose.  She didn’t look too happy about it!


It was a fantastic drive, and I think the high-alpine plateau was my favorite part – even though the wind was howling up there.  The spectacular views were among the best we’ve seen on our many driving adventures, and as usual my pictures cannot capture the immensity of it all.  We urge everyone to make this a destination drive, as it definitely lives up to its designation as an All-American Road!




  1. It is a spectacular drive. The wildflowers are beautiful! We’ve never seen them since our drives were early June right after the road opened with still feet of snow along the road and frozen lakes. A totally different and magnificent sight. Did you catch the ski lift? It is a rope tow and one year they were still skiing in June. Very cool! You feel like you are on top of the world up there. Glad you enjoyed the drive:) How neat to see a moose and get such a nice photo:)

    • We did enjoy the drive but did not realized the winds up there was really howling. And July is the best time to drive with all the flowers on the hillsides and meadows, just breathtaking.

  2. We so wanted to do this when we came through Montana a couple months ago, but it was still closed for the season. We hope to make it back through that way just so we can drive on the byway. Thanks for sharing. Don

  3. Wow! What a spectacular drive….your pictures are fantastic and I’ll certainly put this highway on my list. The whole area looks so interesting. Thanks!

  4. Fabulous! This is my kind of country. Reminds me of the drive through Rocky Mtn National Park. That’s a marmot, not a Pika. Loved all your photos – wonderful captures 🙂

  5. Looks like a young marmot!

    The flowers! Just gorgeous…we did not have many flowers on our drives on the Beartooth.

    It is truly a stunning area, one that I’d gladly return to over and over again!

  6. You did a wonderful job capturing one of my favorite drives. I felt for Steve pulling over for you to take photos (my John can do that just so many times… ). We have been to the Beartooths in August, and September. I will have to check it out in July sometime. The wildflowers looked to be gorgeous and oh, so plentiful! And, the peaks were still white with snow. I love your post and I am sure I will return to read it again. Happy Travels!!

  7. Wow, just WOW!!! Fabulous pictures…in fact so great, looks like we’ll never go…Bill hates long and winding roads and mountain tops! We’d need a driver and then he said he’ll still have to lay down in the back seat under a tarp! We’re pushing it here in the eastern mountains of Kentucky!

  8. Oh my goodness Mona Liza what a fantastic drive. Your photographs are amazing. The view and the flowers. This is a drive I have wanted to take and just can’t seem to get back out there to do it. I really loved doing it with you and am determined to see it for myself. Your pictures make it look fantastic.

  9. There’s so much beauty here, I had to go through the photos twice! The wildflowers are gorgeous (glad you convinced Steve to stop for photos) and your capture of the Mountain Bluebird is wonderful. The entire drive looks amazing. I don’t think I could ever relax in that fire tower knowing that the furniture has to wear insulators. What happens if you’re just standing on the floor and lightning strikes??

  10. Your photos are just stunning MonaLiza! This post brought back such wonderful memories for me of our time in Yellowstone. Hiking in the Beartooths was some of my best times while living in the park. You should travel that highway when it has just opened for the season and there are 12 foot snowdrifts on each side of the road…surreal! Wonderful post!

  11. I’m thinking the designations are well earned. Love the scenery, but the one you captioned “Looking down Rock Creek Canyon from a 9,190′ scenic overlook” is my favorite of the bunch.

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